In Switzerland, a small mountainous country in Central Europe known for its ski stations, banks, watches and chocolate, there are four official languages: German, French, Italian and Romansh.
The fact that German, French and Italian are spoken in Switzerland should be of no surprise given that the country borders Germany, France and Italy. Romansh, however, is a group of Rhaeto-Romance languages that are only spoken in the mountainous canton of the Grisons.
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What languages are spoken in Switzerland?
The Swiss variant of German is the most spoken language in Switzerland. Over 60% of the Swiss population communicates in this language and it is the dominant language in the northern, central and eastern parts of the country.
Swiss German is not as similar to Standard German as it might appear. In fact, some native Standard German speakers encounter problems when communicating with speakers of Swiss German.
This is due to Swiss German, or Schwyzerdütsch as the locals call it, being made up of a series of German dialects that are no longer spoken in either Austria or Germany.
Within the country, the German spoken in different areas of Switzerland will depend on the region’s dialect. You won’t hear the same German in Basel, Zurich or in the region of the Alps.
20% of the Swiss population speaks French, the dominant language in the western part of the country.
Unlike with German, the Swiss and standard variants of French are very similar and, although the vocabulary and expressions can vary, if you speak Standard French fluently, you won’t have any problems communicating with someone who speaks Swiss French.
Italian is spoken in the southern part of Switzerland, along the border with Italy. It is the third most spoken language in Switzerland, with a total of 350,000 speakers, which represents 8% of the population.
As with Swiss French, a speaker of Standard Italian won’t have any difficulties communicating with a Swiss Italian speaker. The main differences between one variant and another are marked by the French or German loanwords used by Italian speakers in Switzerland.
Romansh is the fourth official language of Switzerland and the smallest in terms of the number of speakers (just 37,000).
Spoken in the south-east canton of the Grisons and an official language since 1996, Romansh is used as a language on both a governmental and educational level and is widely spoken by the region’s inhabitants.
Despite there being very few speakers of the language, Romansh has five different dialects which are used consistently by the canton’s inhabitants in their day-to-day. To unify communication, the government of the Grisons has tried to introduce (without much success) a “universal” Romansh throughout the canton.
Multilingualism in daily life
From a very young age in Swiss schools, it is common to study three languages: a main language, a second “local” language and a foreign language. However, in their day to day, the Swiss predominantly use the language of their canton to communicate.
Posters, publicity and signs tend to be written in several languages and not just in each canton’s official language.
We must remember that Swiss cantons tends to be monolingual or bilingual; the only trilingual canton is Graubünden, where Romansh is spoken. That said, the majority only have one of the four languages spoken in Switzerland as their official language.
For the Swiss population, multilingualism is very important and must be respected. An example of this is how 90% of voters voted to keep Romansh as an official language of Switzerland, despite it only being spoken by 0.5% of the population.
In the world of work, the Swiss variant of German is the most widely spoken language (63% of workers), followed by Standard German (34%), French (28%), English (21%) and Italian (8%).
46% of people who work in Switzerland use more than one language in their work at least once a day.
At home or with friends and family, 57% tend to speak Swiss German, 23% French, 11% Standard German and 8% Italian. English and Portuguese are the two non-official languages that are spoken most frequently in Switzerland, 6% and 4%, respectively.
The position of foreign languages in Switzerland
The most recent study by the Swiss Federal Statistical Office, completed in the year 2019, found that one in five people over the age of 25 was learning a second language. English is the most widely studied foreign language by inhabitants of Switzerland (34%), well above French and German (15% in both cases), Spanish (11%) and Italian (9%).
This study also suggested a significant increase in foreign language speakers living in Switzerland, mainly due to migration flows into the country.
5.7% of the Swiss population claims to use English as their main language, followed by Portuguese (3.5%), Albanian (3.3%), Serbo-Croatian and Spanish (2.3% in both cases). The remaining 7.9% claims to speak other languages as their main language.
How do you say hello, goodbye, please and thank you in the 4 official languages of Switzerland?
If you’re going to travel to Switzerland or interact with people from there, we recommend you know at least these four basic expressions in the four languages spoken in Switzerland:
|Swiss German||Swiss French||Swiss Italian||Romansh|
|Hello||Hallo||Bonjour||Ciao||Cia, Tgau, Allegra|
|Goodbye||Auf Wiedersehen||Au revoir||Addio||Ade|
|Please||Bitte||S’il vous plaît||Per favore||Per plaschair|
It goes without saying that if you ever need to translate a document into a language spoken in Switzerland, the first thing you must do is ascertain which of the four official Swiss languages and the canton where the document will be used.